Or are you looking for Search the Archives?

Please complete the form to email this item.

Oil painting - The Fire King
  • The Fire King
    Fuseli, Henry, born 1741 - died 1825
  • Enlarge image

The Fire King

  • Object:

    Oil painting

  • Place of origin:

    London (painted)

  • Date:

    1801-1810 (painted)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Fuseli, Henry, born 1741 - died 1825 (painter (artist))

  • Materials and Techniques:

    oil on canvas

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Paintings, Room 82, The Edwin and Susan Davies Galleries, case SOUTH WALL

Henry Fuseli [Johann Heinrich Füssli] (1741-1825), was born in Zurich and received rigorous art-historical training from his father Johann Caspar Füssli. He spent most of his life in London becoming an associate of the Royal Academy in 1788 and a Royal Academician in 1790. He specialised in history paintings on a grand scale, drawing his inspiration from the mythology, classical literature and notably Dante’s Divine Comedy. He was also a prolific writer and was elected the Academy’s Professor of Painting in a post he held until 1805; he was made Keeper in 1804 and re-elected Professor in 1810, and the statutes were changed to enable him to retain the Keepership as well.

The subject matter was borrowed from Walter Scott’s ballad, The Fire King, published in G.M. Lewis’ Tales of Wonder in 1801. It is set at the time of the Crusades, and depicts the Fire King about to give a magical sword to the hero, Count Albert. This scene of emotional intensity and the emphasis on the hero’s terror as the Fire King appears in a glow of volcanic irruptions is a fine example of Fuseli’s art. His wide-ranging imagination and favourite subject matters draw upon the supernatural, fairy mythology and demonic superstition.

Physical description

At the bottom of stairs in a cavern, a young man wearing a classical armour hides his face with terror in front of an old man dressed all’antica emerging from volcanic irruptions on the right, four half-naked female figures surround him and try to tear up his toga.

Place of Origin

London (painted)


1801-1810 (painted)


Fuseli, Henry, born 1741 - died 1825 (painter (artist))

Materials and Techniques

oil on canvas


Height: 99 cm estimate, Width: 124 cm estimate, Height: 1.265 m frame, Width: 1.52 m frame, Weight: 57 kg with frame, Depth: 9.0 cm frame

Object history note

Purchased, 1885

Historical significance: Fuseli's subject is taken from Sir Walter Scott's Poem, The Fire King published in London in 1801. A Crusader, Count Albert, has been captured by his Infidel enemies and has fallen in love with the Sultan's daughter, Zulema. To gain her hand he has to abjure Christianity, fight his former allies and pass three nights deep in a cavern. Here the scene depicts him in front of the King of Fire who will deliver a magic sword to the hero. The four female figures surrounding the King came from Fuseli's imagination and are not mentioned in the poem.

Historical context note

The word Romanticism derived from the medieval term 'romance' and was first used by the German poets and critics August Wilhelm and Friedrich Schlegel to label a wider cultural movement beginning with the late 18th and ending towards the mid 19th century. Romanticism started first in Western Europe as a literary and philosophical movement and only gradually involved the other arts, explicitly around 1800. Romantic artists were fascinated by nature they interpreted as a mirror of the mind. They investigated human nature and personality, the folk culture, the national and ethnic origins, the medieval era, the exotic, the remote, the mysterious and the occult. The interest in the exotic and the non-Western, illustrated in France by such a painter as Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), as well as the medieval revival, witnessed in England by Horace Walpole (1717-1797), are perhaps the most identifiable parts of Romanticism. It is really in the Post-Napoleonic period that this movement gained ascendancy. Its greatest proponents were among others Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) and François-René de Chateaubriant (1768-1848) in France, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) in England, Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) and Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) in Germany. In the visual arts, it was largely played out by 1850, but in music it persists for another generation.

Descriptive line

Oil painting, 'The Fire King', Henry Fuseli RA, Swiss school, 1801-1810

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

100 Great Paintings in The Victoria & Albert Museum, London: V&A, 1985, p.88
Vikutoria & Arub?to Bijutsukan-z? : eikoku romanshugi kaigaten = The Romantic tradition in British painting, 1800-1950 : masterpieces from the Victoria and Albert Museum / selected by Mark Evans [Japan : Brain Trust], 2002. 185 p. : ill. (chiefly col.) ; 30 cm.
Schiff, G., et al. eds., Johann Heinrich Füssli. 1741-1825, Munich, 1974, cat. no. 160.
Schiff, G. ed., Henry Fuseli, 1741-1825, London, 1975, cat. no. 130.
L'opera completa di Füssli,, G. Schiff ed., Milan, 1977, cat. no. 269.
Altick, R. D., Paintings from Books. Art and Literature in Britain, 1760-1900, Columbus, 1985, p. 425, fig. 312.
Muther, R., Geschichte der englischen Malerei, Berlin, 1903, p. 92.
Tomory, P., The life and art of HenryFuseli, London, 1972, pl. IX, p. 118.
Schiff, G, Johann Heinrich Füssli 1741-1825, 2 vols., Zurich, 1973, cat. no. 1237.
Evans, M., The Painted World. From Illumination to Abstraction, London, 2005, p. 87, illus.


Oil paint; Canvas


Oil painting

Subjects depicted

Man; Fire; Figure; Man; Cavern


Paintings; Scotland


Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

Large image request

Please confirm you are using these images within the following terms and conditions, by acknowledging each of the following key points:

Please let us know how you intend to use the images you will be downloading.